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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra festival a spiritual experience

| Sunday, April 21, 2013, 12:48 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Robert Page, 85, waits to conduct the 2,000 singers rehearsing at Heinz Hall for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Singing City concert during a rehearsal on Wednesday evening, April 10, 2013.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Manfred Honeck

Spirituality is often thought of as an individual experience, a kind of personal enlightenment. The communal experience of spirituality, especially through group singing, is also a powerful force, one which is practiced weekly at houses of worship, in hymns for example.

The concept of a singing city was the theme of the first concert of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Music for the Spirit Festival, led by music director Manfred Honeck on Saturday night at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center in Oakland.

The idea was embodied in several ways. First an immense chorus was assembled, including 53 choirs from Western Pennsylvania, up to Erie, plus the Pittsburgh's Children's Festival Chorus.

Second, the concert featured the world premiere of local composer Jonny Priano's “Sing As One,” a very effective a capella setting of a text based on Psalm 66.

But the concert's encore came closest to fulfilling the concept because the entire audience was invited to join the big chorus for a hymn by Jan Sibelius. The transporting music comes from his symphonic poem “Finlandia” and was subsequently arranged as a hymn by the composer. However, given the week's traumatic events in Boston and Texas, a last minute substitution of “The National Anthem” might have been a better American communal experience.

The initial musical selection showed some of the limitations of performing in a space big enough to hold a gargantuan choir. I know no one who considers the brass and percussion section of the Pittsburgh Symphony to be weak, yet Aaron Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man” was at most mezzo-forte where I was sitting.

Petersen Events Center boasts an excellent sound system which came into play for the spirited performance of “Bonse Aba,” a Zambian Christian song, by the Children's Festival Chorus. The big video screens showed the children's dynamic arm and body movements, which only made the piece more irresistible.

Highlights on the second half were concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley's fervent and stylish performance of the theme from “Schindler's List” by John Williams, and the ending of the finale of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), starting with the call for all the dead to rise.

One piece that seemed shoehorned into the program was the final section of Ottorino Respighi's “The Pines of Rome,” though it does rise to a formidable and audience pleasing climax. This music celebrates the return in triumph of Roman Legions, the armies of an empire notoriously unfriendly to Christians and Jews.

There was a lot of spoken word during the event, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl's short address extolling the power of music to touch our souls and take us out of the immediate moment.

The second half alternated musical selections with Jewish, Islamic and Christian texts, and poems by Langston Hughes and Mahatma Gandhi.

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